Somewhere around 10 years ago, I had a letter that alerted me to the prospect of a windfarm on the unsung Sidlaws summit of Ark Hill. I ransacked the map of the Sidlaws I carry in my head – Ark Hill, a bit east of Kinpurney, a bit north-east of Craigowl; heartland Sidlaws, folded away among quiet places, enlivened by larksong and arrowing peregrines.
Like many people who grew up in Dundee when the postal address was still “Dundee, Angus”, I revere the Sidlaws as something akin to holy ground. They lazed on the northern horizon from the high fields of Hillside Farm on the other side of Glamis Road from my childhood prefab. They were where the Rest of the World began.
They were where I first met nature head-on, where I served my apprenticeship in the craft of going to the hills; where I learned the voices of hill birds, the country speech of old boys with battered rucksacks and faces weathered to the same improbable shade and texture as their dubbinned boots; where I learned how to get lost and then find my way home, and how to fall in love forever with the sight, sound, smell and feel of my native heath.
That 10-year-old letter was from Jane Brewster, who lives with her farming family on the north-facing slope of Ark Hill. For the last 13 years the Brewsters and their neighbours have lived with and fought against the prospect of a wind farm less than one kilometre from their front door. In the process they have acquired a database of knowledge and resources from all over Scotland.
Yet even as they help to spread the word about this Saturday’s demonstration march in Perth, when the SNP conference is in town, the diggers are pulling the heather moor crown of Ark Hill apart, making roads, fashioning bases for eight 84-metre-high wind turbines. The battle for Ark Hill has been lost, work has begun, and Angus is about to get its first windfarm, with a queue of applications in the wings.
So, 10 years after the event that spurred me to visit the Brewsters and wander up Ark Hill from the north side for the first time, 10 years in which we have campaigned in our very different ways against the excesses of the energy industry, there was a new email from Jane Brewster. It told me not only that work had begun, but also that Ark Hill was being visited by a sea eagle.
So, 10 years older and wiser, we met again round their kitchen table while cloudless mid-morning sun flared against the bright yellow-and-glass cabs of two toiling diggers on the hilltop, and golden plovers called a hundred yards from them.
My engagement with this windfarm business began with uncomplicated outrage at what I saw – and still see – as crimes against the landscape and everything that uses and lives in the landscape. My preoccupation as a writer has always been to try to give the landscape a voice, that above anything else.
But as the windfarm industry has got the bit between its teeth and the scale of its excesses appears to know no bounds, so that it considers nothing and nowhere sacred or in any way exempt, and as I have seen at first hand its blight stain the mainland landscape from Caithness to Galloway and creep out among the islands, I have become aware of a growing human cost.
Hundreds of conversations in dozens of communities have echoed countless variations on the same theme, summarised by Jane Brewster: “There is a total absence of democracy from the entire process.”
There is, it seems to me, a widespread sense of anger that is layered with despair and bitterness. People who use our landscape, for whatever reason, hate windfarms, visitors from our own cities and from other countries are horrified by the fact that we build what are effectively power stations in landscapes they once thought beautiful.
But the real human victims are the ones who have windfarms for neighbours, and it is among them that I have heard the first dark mutterings about “a second clearance”.
An American physician and ecologist has published the results of a small study among 38 such people in 10 families, aged between infancy and 75. Her book is called Wind Farm Syndrome. Their symptoms, she said, formed a cluster. They included sleep disturbance, headache, tinnitus, ear pressure, dizziness, vertigo, nausea, visual blurring, rapid heart rate, irritability, problems with concentration and memory, and “panic episodes associated with sensations of internal pulsation and quivering, which arise while awake or asleep”.
The symptoms developed after the turbines began running. When the people went away from their homes the symptoms went away, and when they returned so did the symptoms. Eight out of the 10 families eventually moved away, “in some cases abandoning their homes”.
It’s a small study but it hints at something grotesque and it is being inflicted on our landscape, and by association on our people, and what we don’t know yet is what manner of terrors it inflicts on wild creatures, apart from the fact the turbines kill birds. That wandering sea eagle, itself a living symptom of another policy of the same government that should be cause for celebration, has been released into a landscape that includes Ark Hill and an unchecked flood of applications on both sides of the Tay estuary. Unless it too moves away, its days are numbered.
The growing feeling among the people is that the planning process cannot cope, and they and the land and the birds are the victims. That and the unacceptable idea that democracy is absent.
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